Rare Sight: Two California Condors

Bob Maloy shared with us this photo after he was lucky enough to see two extremely rare and critically endangered California condors from a bridge over the Colorado River in Arizona.

How rare is the California condor? This type of vulture—North America's largest bird, with a wingspan of up to 10 feet—dwindled to just 22 known individuals by the 1980s because of hunting, habitat loss, lead poisoning (from the bullets in the carcasses on which these scavengers feed), DDT poisoning and collisions with power lines.

Those 22 survivors were captured and put in a breeding program, one limited by the fact that the birds can't reproduce before age six and generally lay just one egg every one or two years in the wild. (In the breeding program, that egg is removed, prompting the female to lay a second and even third one; the chicks from the removed eggs are raised using condor hand-puppets so that the chicks don't imprint on humans, as shown in this video clip: http://www.arkive.org/…/gymnogyps-california…/video-15b.html).

Offspring from this painstaking and heroic breeding program have been released over the last 25 years to try to rebuild the wild population, which now stands at almost 250—a fragile number, especially given that all of them descend from just 14 of the 22 condor survivors of the 1980s. Despite a California ban on lead bullets, condors continue to die from lead poisoning, possibly from bullets in carcasses elsewhere in their range, which includes Arizona, Utah and Mexico.

It's interesting to note that in the Pleistocene era (which began about 2.5 million years ago) the California condors' range was vastly larger, extending from what's now Canada to Mexico, across the American South and up the East Coast to New York. That range shrank dramatically 10,000 years ago after the extinction of mastodons, giant ground sloths, saber-tooth cats, camels and other big ground mammals. Our thanks go out to scientists and other conservationists for keeping the California condor from joining that list of extinct animals.

Many thanks as well to Bob for sharing his rare photo with us. He says that the two condors he saw in Arizona bore the wing-tag numbers 54 and H9—biologists have named and tagged all the released condors to keep track of them—and that he also saw an immature one in the area. What an experience.